Amadís of Gaul

by Vasco de Lobeira

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988

A single original to this text has been lost. What most modern English readers have is an abridged 1803 translation by the poet Robert Southey of a Spanish work published in Saragossa in 1508 by Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo. Southey’s work superseded an earlier English translation by Anthony Munday, dating from the Elizabethan era, while Montalvo claimed to have derived his version from a work by the Portuguese writer Vasco de Lobeira. This attribution is dubious because Vasco de Lobeira was active in the latter part of the fourteenth century, and the earliest references to the text date from the first half of that century.

If the work did originate in Portugal, a more probable author might be Juan Lobeira, who was active in the latter part of the thirteenth century and who is credited elsewhere with the composition of a song whose Spanish translation can be found in the Montalvo version, although Vasco de Lobeira might conceivably have done a later version of it. There is no way of knowing for sure where the original version of the story was written down, by whom, or when. Montalvo does tell his readers, however, that in translating Lobeira’s work he has considerably modified its supposedly outmoded style, and modern commentators believe that the fourth volume of his version consists of material added by him.

In its form and content Amadís of Gaul is an imitation of the tradition of French chivalric romances concerning the exploits of Charlemagne and his knights, which expanded to take in such figures as Alexander the Great and the English King Arthur and such motifs as the quest for the Holy Grail. As in many such romances, the protagonist, Amadís, begins in “Lesser Britain” (Brittany), at the interface of Anglo-Norman and Gallic culture. Amadís, the son of Perión of Gaul, is brought up on the barbarous fringe of the Norman sphere of influence but must eventually seek his fortune on a hypothetical island that has been settled by a prince of Greece and the daughter of the emperor of Rome. In this manner the plot bridges the whole spectrum of imagined European traditions and values (tacitly extended to include the eastern domains of Constantinople and Bohemia). The central figure, Amadís, symbolizes, among other things, the union of all Christendom. His natural nobility must perforce be hidden under various guises—most notably that of the Green Knight—but it nevertheless causes him to remain absolutely faithful to his ideal, Oriana. Primarily a romantic ideal, Oriana is also a political and spiritual ideal.

Montalvo’s version of the story is important in several ways. As a robust product of a vernacular language it embodies something of the spirit of the Renaissance. It was enormously popular not only as an adventure story but also as a guide to morals and manners, and it made a substantial contribution to the sense of cultural rebirth that boosted progressive ideas and ideals. It also wrought a subtle but vital revision of the medieval mythology of courtly love, in which the women idealized by knights were traditionally the wives of their liege-lords and thus permanently unattainable. The substitution of a marriageable heroine changed the story’s ideal ending and thus its whole direction. The most perfect knights of traditional romance were those who remained utterly chaste; the ultimate prize of beholding the Holy Grail was withheld from any who had ever harbored a lustful thought. Montalvo refuses to indulge such fervent asceticism; the symbolic Arch of True Love that permits Amadís and the conveniently eligible Oriana passage into their bridal chamber grants a significant license to physical passion....

(This entire section contains 988 words.)

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This conclusion probably did not exist in the accounts of Amadís’s adventures that circulated before Montalvo’s, and it may mark the story as it exists currently as a true product of the early sixteenth century.

Although the supernatural plays a muted role in Montalvo’s story—at least by comparison with later tales of adventure penned by his many imitators—the mode of its operation contrasts with the pious supernaturalism of the grail romances, more closely resembling the fanciful supernaturalism of the French romances featuring the conveniently pre-Christian Alexander. Amadís of Gaul cannot be regarded as a wholeheartedly secular work, but much of Amadís’s knight errantry is conducted in a forthright spirit of adventure that finds a Christian conscience relatively unburdensome. This aspect of the work is probably not original to Montalvo, but it is nevertheless significant of an important shift in values.

The genre for which Amadís of Gaul served as an archetype flourished during the sixteenth century, and it became one of the most popular forms of literature ever. Its ruthless satirization in Miguel de Cervantes’ El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha,1612-1620) signified that it had become ridiculous. Although the genre of chivalric romance faded away throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, certain key elements of it retained their potency and continued their evolution. Amadís of Gaul provided a vital steppingstone in the evolution of the modern mythology of romantic love, and modern “romantic fiction” still retains within its formula that final passage through the arch of true love to the bridal chamber. Even more spectacularly, the revived genre of “heroic fantasy” brought back into favor exactly the kind of plot that Amadís of Gaul lays out, with an astonishing abundance of misplaced heroes embarking upon lengthy quests, beset by all manner of magical and monstrous perils before they finally achieve their proper station in a confused world. The strong similarities between these modern genres and a work that few modern writers have read are testimony to the sturdiness of the literary traditions. The survival of such forms of literature is tribute to the extent to which modern culture is rooted in the intellectual achievements of the Renaissance.